Digital and devolution failures threaten London development

Monday 25 June 2018

Developers and local authorities must get better at taking communities through the benefits of their schemes as well as the items they may need to work on together, against a background of more effective partnership working. But London is facing a difficult battle to stay competitive given a central government that does not view digital infrastructure as a high priority and its refusal to allow the capital to spend the taxes it raises.

Those were some of the key issues to emerge at the Grosvenor conference, convened to in part discuss its 20-year vision.

The session was kicked off by Grosvenor chief executive Craig McWilliam, who explained that the estate’s vision ‘has almost nothing in it that we can do alone’, and that challenges for the capital include solving an ‘acute’ housing shortage which will require ‘bold leadership’ to turn around. It has proposed a new neighbourhood in Bermondsey with a pipeline of 9000 homes and the real estate sector in general has delivered greatly across the capital, he said. But it was also true that the benefits of new places are rarely associated with the actions of developers. ‘They’re often perceived as part of the problem’, said McWilliam. ‘Like all businesses, we face growing calls to explain our value to society. The truth is that at Grosvenor – just as at other property companies – we have failed to tell a story in clear enough ways’. enough’. Public trust in the planning process and intentions of the property industry, McWilliam went on, are deteriorating, and developers need to make a profit but also deliver wider social benefit. ‘We have an enormous and positive opportunity to recast these conversations’, he said. 

LSE director Tony Travers said that much of the tax raised by London is kept by the Treasury, and the capital struggles to lobby effectively for pay-outs – beyond infrastructure like Crossrail –  because of its perception as a city that looks rich. ‘There’s a risk of underinvestment’, he said. ‘That is the single biggest threat.’ Another challenge to central London is that other parts of London are more ‘interesting’ than they once were, and the centre of gravity is heading east. ‘It’s still a highly successful place but what is needed is reinvestment, and thoughtful reinvestment, for it to remain competitive.’ Questioned whether his moves with the London Finance Commission had fallen on deaf ears, Travers said that central government was not the best advert for well thought-through policies. ‘Yes, we haven’t succeeded yet’, he admitted. ‘But I remain endlessly optimistic, in a kind of pessimistic way.

Cluttons’ head of research Faisal Durrani pointed to London’s poor status in digital infrastructure as another key problem – reinforced by Dame Judith Mayhew from the audience floor – with a YouGov survey of 500 office workers saying it was now the fourth most important consideration for people when looking at new offices – and valued at a £4/sqft premium in the West End. ‘For London as a whole the key issue is around infrastructure’, he said.  In the wake of Brexit the last thing we can afford to do is be complacent.’

Other speakers at the event included DSDHA director Deborah Saunt, who said London had made major advances in placemaking and a ‘recalibration of the hierarchy’ on our streets over the last 20 years and Jenny Packham CEO Matthew Anderson, who urged that London resist the ‘cut and paste’ of our high streets. Donald Insall Associates’ Tanvir Hassan made a plea for embedded energy to be included in sustainability measures, Make Architects director Katy Ghahremani for a relaxation of use classes to better aid ground floor vitality, and Urban Space Management founding director Eric Reynolds for an urgent need to improve government and retain the value of heritage. ‘For God’s sake get off your bottoms and get yourself to be a mayor or something’, Reynolds urged the audience. Westminster City Council’s director of place shaping Deirdra Armsby added that local authorities have to make a bigger effort to ‘enable, educate and energise’ their communities to get involved in the strategy side of things. ‘We need to take the conversation to them rather than standing in a hall at 7 o’clock at night, because that doesn’t work’, she said. And British Land’s head of Canada Water Development Roger Madelin said the quality of political leaders needed to improve, it was becoming harder in the age of social media to develop, many exhibiting ‘compulsive objection disorder syndrome’, but that placemaking was perhaps anyway a misnomer. ‘We’re not actually making a place’, he said. ‘We’re evolving a place.’

Finally, Grosvenor director of the London estate Anna Bond said the estate had taken back the management of Grosvenor Square from government and will be launching an international ideas competition to ‘reimagine’ the historic square, which will be followed by a formal design competition next year.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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